Have you ever thought you might like to work as a private cook or chef? Every year, many students from the top cookery schools in the world, Cordon Bleu, Leith’s, Tante Marie and Westminster College to name a few, enter the refined world of the rich, the noble and the famous, to source, prepare, cook and serve everyday meals and party feasts in some of the world’s most beautiful, and private, properties. The Foodie Bugle asked Jane Urquhart, the owner of one of London’s most respected domestic staff agencies, to tell us all about this world. Who exactly are her clients, what sort of cooks are they looking for, and what are the terms and conditions on offer once that exclusive job contract has been signed? Here is what she told us.
Cooks on the books – by Jane Urquhart
At Jane Urquhart Limited we are always looking for capable cooks or chefs who are creative and who have an interest in healthy and organic recipes and ingredients.
Why are we looking for such elusive experts? Because out there is a world of wealth and prosperity that comes in the form of wonderful private houses, yachts, ski chalets and villas all over the world. In these wonderful places, live people whose privacy and personal space is protected and special. Their main anxiety in finding new staff is to find those who will be almost invisible in their ability to provide wonderful services, such as cooking, cleaning, butler and valeting, to name a few.
Security is often an issue and confidentiality agreements are sometimes completed even before the second interview.
There are four sorts of clients in this elite private world. The traditional employers have always had staff, have always had cooks and live in sometimes faded splendour. Their standards are often old fashioned and staff are always uniformed, working to routines and traditions built up over the years. As time has gone by, they too seek the multi-skilled member of staff but the salary levels in these jobs are not always of the highest and the bonus at Christmas might be more a Christmas pudding rather than a fat cheque. They are lovely to work for and a popular option. Many of these clients offer corporate events in their homes and for a cook or chef this can present quite a challenge. I have one lovely client with her Smallbone 6 door Aga to-die-for kitchen and then next door an industrial stainless steel all singing, all dancing kitchen for entertaining. I rather suspect the cook never gets any chance to put the meringues in the slow oven of the Aga!
People who have recently made money, won money or inherited money are a different type of employer. They pour money into making their homes and chalets the most spectacular in terms of comfort and luxury. They expect their homes to match the best hotels and look for support in giving them freedom to enjoy their wealth. Words such as “flexible working” are common and expectations of staff’s energy levels are high which would match the equivalent rewards. They worked hard to make their money in lots of cases and they expect the same from those who work for them.
I remember one such client looking for a good chef, and he hired a different candidate each Friday afternoon and evening for six weeks.The challenge was to create a soup, make a wonderful chicken recipe and satisfy a chocoholic’s fantasy. The one who cooked the best food got the job at £50,000 with the summer in the South of France.
A number of foreign clients seek staff who might either travel with them (they are often only in England for three months of the year) and who can cater for different cultures, such as Indian, Thai or Mexican food for example. Here the challenges lie not with the cuisine but sometimes in understanding their expectations. Language differences can create misunderstandings. I remember well the cook who thought they were meant to find the ingredients for a very extraordinary barbeque in deep freezes in the basement of a large London house. There they found a whole frozen shark. Using initiative and a large electric carving knife, shark steaks were beginning to stack up when a horrified voice stopped the whole exercise. The shark had been flown in from Florida to be thrown in the swimming pool as a scary joke!
Then there are the commercial employers who own houses for the private use of their directors or for training, offering a private house type environment but with corporate usage. These jobs are always popular, offering pension schemes, excellent packages and often free weekends.
Commercial cooks love to transfer out of the frantic, highly pressured kitchens of hotels and top restaurants and find catering for discerning palates and smaller numbers highly rewarding. Many start their transfer from this corporate world by working on private yachts and chalets and this world of the short-term contract seems to become quite addictive. It is no surprise, considering the sunshine in the summer and the crisp snowy mountains in the winter.
Jobs for cooks in private service come with little cottages provided, good salaries of up to and above £35,000 and a life style that allows for herbs to be grown in the garden and menu planning with personal tastes and special guests and occasions in mind. Its not a difficult choice for some.
We take great trouble to match the expectations of our candidates to our clients’ needs and never put anyone forward for a position unless they have been interviewed by one of our consultants and have had all their references checked. We are very honest about the vacancies we have and describe the position as it really is. Then the cook can decide if they think it might be for them and the process begins. We also take great trouble to confirm all the details of the position before anyone starts work so there are no muddles or misunderstandings on issues such as who pays which bills in the accommodation.
Some accommodation comes with all bills paid, some require the cook to pay for their electricity or heating, and this, of course would be reflected in their salary. Working on private yachts is another way of enjoying free accommodation and often the monthly wage is about 6.500 Euros a month. Ski chalets pay less, but of course the bonus there is the wonderful opportunity to improve your skiing prowess!
If any of this interests you, we would love to hear from you. We can talk through the options, discuss your ideas and thoughts on your future and hopefully give you a chance to fulfil a few dreams and cook in places and for people who you get to know and who you can tempt with your lovely cuisine. And who knows, you could become one of the cooks on our books.
Jane Urquhart www.janeurquhart.com
E-mail: [email protected]
Tel: 0207 738 1262 or 07885 893985